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Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox) artwork

Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox) review

"Launch. Game. Roll those words about in your head for just a moment. What springs to mind? Recent history dictates that it will probably be thoughts of lacklustre efforts like Ridge Racer V and it's ilk - games that certainly looked very pretty, but lacked any gameplay flair that set them apart from any previous system. Well hold on to your dungarees, boys and girls, because if that's what you were thinking, then Halo is going to leave you ecstatically surprised. Sorry to ruin any suspense that ..."

Launch. Game. Roll those words about in your head for just a moment. What springs to mind? Recent history dictates that it will probably be thoughts of lacklustre efforts like Ridge Racer V and it's ilk - games that certainly looked very pretty, but lacked any gameplay flair that set them apart from any previous system. Well hold on to your dungarees, boys and girls, because if that's what you were thinking, then Halo is going to leave you ecstatically surprised. Sorry to ruin any suspense that could have been built up by giving away the ending of the review, but this is the best launch game since Tetris.

Halo tells the tale of the conflict between the heroic forces of Earth and the butt-ugly alien Covenant - a union of races bound together by a maniacal religious zeal. These two armies have been fighting the war for years, but the humans have so far managed to keep Earth's existence a secret. Meanwhile, Earth's science guys have been developing a weapon that might just give them the upper hand over the Covenant - The Spartan II soldiers - eight-foot tall cyborgs that can pack a hell of a punch. Somehow, though, the Covenant get wind of this, and the development facility is destroyed. Captain Keyes and the crew of the rather superbly named Pillar Of Autumn take the last surviving Spartan II - Master Chief - who has managed to remain cryogenically frozen, and flee into subspace. However, when they emerge from the other side, the Covenant are waiting for them, and the only hope for the crew of the Autumn is lying in their cargo bay. Frozen. Asleep. Waiting.....

And thus begins Halo. Playing as Master Chief, you awake to find the Autumn just seconds away from being boarded by hordes of Covenant troops. There's just enough time to get told how to use the controls, and decide whether you want to invert them (up is down....) or not, before the Covenant break in and start slaughtering the human marines. Your first order of duty is to meet Keyes on the bridge. Find him, and he will give you your first weapon, a pistol, and will ask you to do him a very special favour - he wants to download Cortana, the Autumn's AI, into your brain, to prevent information about Earth getting into Covenant hands. Master Chief agrees, and you now have a pretty whiny American girl's voice that cuts in every so often to tell you where to go. Sounds fair enough to me. Now that you're armed, the real fun begins.

Halo is a First Person Shooting game. But to dismiss it as just another Half-Life, or just another Quake isn't fair - Halo is more than that. Nintendo have stated that the forthcoming Metroid Prime will be a First-Person Adventure, and perhaps that is the category that would best suit Halo, as there's far more to this game than shooting the aliens as they come running down narrow corridors towards you. Okay so admittedly that describes the first levels pretty well, but as soon as you evacuate the Autumn, and your lifeboat crashes on the mysterious ring that's floating in space nearby - the Halo of the title - you realise how special this game really is - left in a wide open space it's up to you to find other marines that have survived the impact, and help them out when the inevitable covenant forces drop in to say hi. The majesty of the game really starts to come into play here, as each and every time you see one of your comrades fall to the ground dead you become wracked with guilt - could you have done something different to save them? Was it your fault? Should you restart and try to keep them all alive? More often than not you'll decide that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes, and you'll start again from the last checkpoint, determined not to let another human soldier die. You see, Halo is a game that plays with your conscience. You'll quickly learn that the best way to survive is to find a suitable hiding place and let the marines take out the enemy themselves. But when you emerge from your hiding place like the cowardly bastard you are, and see all the marines dead on the floor, the marines that you didn't - wouldn't - help, the marines that you failed, you genuinely feel bad. This is testament to the depths to which Halo sucks you in.

It's not all first person gunnery though - there's also a few vehicles available to drive. There's the Warthog jeep - which you can choose to either drive yourself or allow someone else to drive whilst you man the gun, the Scorpion tank, which really is as cool as it sounds, the Ghost - a kind of Alien motorbike, and the Banshee, an alien plane. While the inclusion of these vehicles is no doubt a welcome one, it does lead to pretty much the only complaint in the game - they are an absolute pest to control: unless you choose to invert the controls (a recommended option that I didn't realise was even available until I browsed through the 'Settings' menu) then the control method is downright odd - the left stick controls the acceleration, the right the camera angle - the steering itself is done automatically. This is the same system used in the first person mode, and while it works blissfully well there, here it feels clumsy. It may sound odd to say it, but I found these controls to work fantastically well until I started to think about what I was doing, at which point it all went a bit Pete Tong as I started floundering all over the place like an ice-skating octopus. Still, as with all things, a bit of practice soon sorted it all out, and before too long I was mowing down one enemy before spinning my jeep to crush another against a wall with the back of the vehicle (yes you really CAN do that in the game, and yes it really is as cool as it sounds).

What makes the game so impressive, though, what makes it such a masterpiece, is the AI. Not only do your fellow marines behave in a truly believable manner (cowering in fear, running from grenades and such), but the enemies do too, making every single battle, every single play through the game completely different. The AI extends right down to the tiniest detail, too: for example, decide to go completely bonkers and shoot Captain Keyes as soon as you get a gun, and the game changes to accommodate your downright disrespect for authority - the marines make it their top priority to kill you, and seeing how long you can last in such a situation is outstandingly difficult, and devilishly enjoyable. It's the attention to such minor details, the effort that is put in to things that the majority of gamers will never even see, that makes Halo stand out as one of the most complete games ever - Bungie have obviously put so much love into creating this game, and it really shows.

There's also some pretty superb multi-player options available - the standard deathmatch is of course available, but there's also a brutal ball game where the first player to hold a skull for two minutes wins, a racing mode where you can take the various vehicles in the game for a spin, capture the flag, a mode where you have to hold a certain territory for a set period of time, and the jewel in the crown, the co-operative mode. The Co-Op allows you to attempt any of the single missions in two+ player mode, with you and your friends playing for the same side. While it does make certain parts too easy (meaning that the difficulty levels needs changing - Normal on Co-Op is equal to Easy on single player), it still adds a new level of depth, as you can try so many tactics that just wouldn't be possible in the single player game - you can try pincer movements, one player can drive a jeep while the other mans the gun... there's just so many possibilities that this game ranks up there alongside Goldeneye and friends as being one of the best multi-player experiences EVER. Be warned though, Co-operative play will descend into the occasional bloodbath, as you 'accidentally' take out your comrade with a perfectly executed and utterly hilarious neck-breaking blow to the back with the butt of your gun. Revenge naturally follows, and before too long it's violence ahoy, as all the enemy forces need do is sit back and watch as you wreak merry hell on your companion. Still, it's all in the name of good, clean, blood-lusty fun, isn't it? Ultimately, the multi-player aspects of this game alone contain twice as much as many full games on lesser systems do, and combine that with a single player game that will take 20-30 hours first time through and you have a game that is certainly value for money, even at the ludicrous 45 charged for XBox games.

Presentation-wise this is everything you'd expect from Microsoft's dark-green baby: it's all utterly superb. Explosions look and sound real, light reflects off all the surfaces that light should reflect off of (even down to some of the guns that you have in your arsenal), and marines and aliens alike offer enough gung-ho lines to fill an entire month's worth of the Sky Moviemax schedule. But as impressive as all the big graphical and aural touches are, it's the little things that really impress, such as the outstanding detail put into the grass on Halo's surface, or the haunting whine of the approaching enemy airships. It's all remarkably accomplished, and only a few little things let it down: the water doesn't really look that great, and the level five snow effects are good, but again not really anything that special. Still, all in all this is one of the front-runners in terms of XBox presentation.

At the end of the day, this game isn't worth buying the system for, but only because, well, what game is worth 345 (plus the 25 for a new controller so that you can get the full Halo experience)? But if you are planning on getting the console, make sure this is the first game you get. It's mind-blowingly brilliant that Microsoft have a game of this calibre available from day one, and the future looks rosy for XBox judging from this performance. The only downer other than the vehicular control issues is the plot, which, while providing a nice resolution, doesn't truly finish, although it does leave the path for the inevitable Halo 2 well and truly open, so it can't be all bad.

Just one word of advice, though - don't think that you can just have a quick go before bed - you'll never sleep that night, it's that addictive! This is truly one of the best games I've ever played (and believe me - I don't give out 10 scores lightly), and is a must for anyone whose ever played a FPS game and at least marginally enjoyed it.

An angelic experience.

tomclark's avatar
Community review by tomclark (February 03, 2004)

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